Tibetan Bleeding Cup


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What is it?

This object, which lives in a drawer in the American Museum of Natural History, is a hollowed out animal horn and was probably used in traditional Tibetan medicine for cupping. Although the AMNH labels it as a bleeding cup, my research indicates that it probably was not used to hold blood, though the process of cupping involves moving blood to certain identified areas of the body.

The most convincing evidence that this horn was used for cupping can be found in the image below, a plate from the book "Tibetan Medicine".
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"Plate No. 17
A Tibetan doctor's medicine bag made of leather and silk brocade, where he keeps his medicines and instruments. Each powder is kept in a little leather bag with a bone label as shown. The bag in the Wellcome library is 9 inches high and the diameter at the bottom measures 10 inches. It contains fifty little bags with powders. Spoon for measuring medicines. Instruments for taking off a cataract. An ox's horn used for cupping. Medicinal stone. A cow's horn with a small hole at the tip, through which the doctor sucks blood from the diseased area. (Tibetan Medicine, 132)"

The small ox horn to the right of the medicine bag pictured closely resembles the AMNH's horn. This horn was included in the medicine bag of a Tibetan doctor. Further evidence that this horn was not used for bleeding comes from the section on surgical instruments which describes another object used for bloodletting: "For removing bad blood and pus from affected parts of the body, a round copper bowl, 4 inches in diameter" (Tibetan Medicine, 84).

Common to these sytems of thought is a construction of the body as a microcosm of the natural universe. To this largely naturalisitc system of theory and practice, early Tibetan medical scholars added Buddhist notions of the mind or self, emotion, and the law of karma, developing a theoretical system in which the notion of a mental self (sems) was constituted as dominant over the objective, or grossly physical, body...Thus, Buddhist medicine posits that the self (the "ego") is ultimately causal of all suffering, including that of ill health. Although body and mind are seen as fundamentally integreated in this sytem, it is the mind that problematized and seen as primary in faciliatating both health and ill health (The Transformation of Tibetan Medicine, 10).

Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Chart indicating good and bad bloodletting days and when to guard against demons. The chart also contains a sme ba, 9 figures symbolizing the elements in geomancy, in the center with the Chinese pa-kua, 8 trigrams, surrounded by 12 animals representing months and years. Below this, symbols of the 7 days of the week. 106 compartments containing an ornamental letter in each and written in dbu indicate bloodletting days. The protector deities, top, are Manjursri, the White Tara and Vajrapani, below them the 8 fortune signs and other symbols.
Collection: Asian Collection




The Importance of Horns

Horns have been used medicinally for millenia, most notably by the Chinese. "The horn of rhinoceros dries pus and purifies the blood; antelope's horns is used in medicines that diarrhea; wild yak's horn cures tumours and gives warmth to the body; the horn of argali (Asiatic wild sheep) protects against contagious diseases; wild sheep's and Saigo antelope's horn assist easy birth. Crocodile's claws cure bone fever. Snail's shell cures dropsy and stomach diseases" (Tibetan Medicine, 71)


How did this horn end up at the American Museum of Natural History? Possibilities...


While the specific circumstances of this object's history are unavailable, it is interesting to note the acquisition dates, 1920-1953, that are listed in the object's catalogue information. These dates correspond to the end of a period of significant missionary activity in Tibet, which played an important role in the growth of many museum's Tibetan collections. The Newark Museum, which houses a prominent collection of Tibetan objects, was born from the work of the medical missionary Albert Shelton, who spent periods of several years living in Tibet with his wife and family. When Shelton met Dr. Edward Crane in 1910, a founding trustee of the Newark Museum, on his return voyage from a six year mission in Tibet, they became friends and he eventually sold his personal collection of Tibetan objects to the museum. Dr. Shelton was not the only missionary in Tibet during the time period.
Between 1928 and 1948 three more missionary collections, all from north-eastern Tibet were purchased, greatly enhancing the Museum's holdings of ethnographic and ceremonial art. These were the Robert Ekvall collection, from the Kokonor nomad region, Amdo, 1928, the Carter D. Holton collection from Labrang, Amdo, 1936, and the Robert Roy Service collection, formed during trips to northeastern Tibet and acquired from Chinese traders in the border areas, 1948. Holton and his colleague, the Re. M.G. Griebenow, worked at the American-sponsored Christian and Missionary Alliance Mission at Labrang.

The American Museum of Natural History, in the catalogue information, lists the donor as "Marx". Dr. Karl Marx was a missionary in Tibet at the end of the 19th century and while he is less well known that Dr. Albert Shelton, the ANMH's Asian Ethnographic Collection website, which pictures their collection of objects, lists 167 other objects with the donor name "Marx" in the Tibetan collection. This includes medicine bags, a medicine spoon, etc.


Tibet and its visitors at the turn of the twentieth century


The route map of Captain W.J. Gill's journey in Western China and Eastern Tibet
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Issues in Tibetan medicine today



"Tibetan Medicine, already under pressure to modernize in the early 20th c. as a result of the 13th Dalai Lama's efforts to centralize political power and authority, has become mired in these larger Chinese-Tibetan conflicts by virtue of its culturally significant and religiously salient position in Tibetan society" (pg 7)




BLEEDING CUP
ASIAN ETHNOGRAPHIC COLLECTION
Catalog No:
70.0/ 2107
Culture:
TIBETAN
Country:
TIBET
Material:
HORN
Dimensions:
L:9.3 W:5 H:3.6 [in CM]
Donor:
MARX
Accession No:
1920-53



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http://skepticwiki.org/index.php/Life_of_St_Issa#Dr_Karl_Marx